Game review: Magic: The Gathering: Arena (beta for PC)

I actually planned to do a different review this week for Wizard of Legend, but despite feeling like I’ve played it for ages, Steam swears I’ve only been at it 13 hours. So I figure I’ll give it a bit more time before breaking out the gas and matches to burn it to the ground. On the other hand, only being ten hours into the free to play Magic: The Gathering: Arena (A name with way too many colons for my liking), I already know enough to tell you what you need to know about this game. Really, it’s Magic, but in a digital form. If you’ve played Magic anytime in its entire history, you already know what this means, and have already decided if you’re going to go in on this or not. This, then, is the review for the people who somehow missed out on the game for the last 20-some-odd years.

Before I get into it, I should cover some history explaining why I was originally hesitant to play this and explain why I was kind of right to be wary. I got into Magic: The Gathering at the ground floor with the first generation of cards thanks to my roommate Andy. Andy gave me the “first free hit” that pushed me to start buying booster packs, and after a few weeks of trying to make monster decks of ridiculous sizes, I began to instead create smaller 40 card decks comprised of one or two mana colors and with lots of land and low cost spells and creatures. While most of my friends used mega-decks with high cost cards, I could pull up an army while they were still laying out land to pay for their first summons, and I destroyed them most of the time unless I just had a really bad shuffle.

But I reached the point where I was spending all my free money on booster decks. No, I reached the point where food and bills got shuffled to the side to pay for more cards, and recognizing I had an obsession bordering on addiction, I quit the game and gave away all my cards. Five years later, a random co-worker asked if I played Magic, and I said I used to, but couldn’t afford it. So he gave me a deck to play with, and before you can say obsessive compulsive disorder, I was looking at dwindling finances and a binder full of duplicate cards again. So yeah, even in a digital form, I worried that this game might once again bring out the worst in me. To a smaller extent, I can already feel that tug to spend some real cash to get crystals so I can buy booster packs faster. In this way, Magic can be dangerous even if it’s loads of fun.

With that out of the way, let’s cover the very basics of the video game version. You and one online opponent have 60 card decks, either the pre-made sets or something you build yourself. The computer decides who goes first, and you each draw seven cards. If your hand doesn’t have anything you can use effectively, you can redraw six cards and shuffle the first hand back into your deck. You can actually keep doing this “mulligan” until you have no cards, which isn’t typical, but I have seen opponents get so screwed by their shuffles that they had to concede the game before we ever laid out a single card. (This fortunately has not happened to me yet.)

Once you’ve both got a hand of cards, whoever goes first lays out one land card. Land cards provide mana, the currency to pay for all other cards. While most times, the first land phase leads to a player giving control over to the other player, there are in fact cards that cost one mana to cast. But most creatures usually cost two, so the second player also lays out land, and then the turn reverts back to the first player. Once enough lands have been laid out to summon a creature, the creature card is set down on the “field of battle,” but it suffers “summoning sickness,” preventing it from attacking in the same turn it was summoned. (But not from blocking attacks should the second player do so. Helpful to know when throwing up an initial defense in the early phases.) Every creature has two numbers defining their attack strength and defense strength. When two creatures go head to head, those numbers determine who lives and dies. (For instance, a 3/2 creatures will kill a 2/3 creature and live to fight again. two creatures with matching 2/2 stats will thus wipe each other out.) Many creatures also have special abilities, but if that seems complicated, simply pointing the mouse cursor over the card will explain the abilities in plain English.

There are also spells and sorceries to harm enemies and their creatures, or to buff your own army up to make them harder to kill. In addition, there are artifact cards that can have similar effects to spells, or can be considered creatures. Whatever flavor of card you have, you still need mana to pay the cost of using it. So every game phase goes like this: lay out land, summon critters, attack with critters you’ve already summoned and use sorceries to help do damage to your opponent. Both players start with 20 health, and whoever makes it to 0 first loses.

That’s the simplified version, though there are many cards that can complicate matters by healing the players. There are cards that can remove your creatures from the game, or return them to your hand, forcing you to summon them again and wait another turn to use them. There are special cards that can summon token creatures without paying mana to get them on the field, though they do still suffer from summoning sickness. The list can go on and on, but you don’t need to know about any of that going into the game. Just knowing the basic phases and strategies will get you by until you have a better understanding of what special cards can greatly help or royally screw you.

As I said, if you’ve played Magic in any of its past incarnations, none of this is going to be alien to you. It can be a fun time provided you do a bit of work to the pre-constructed decks, and that’s the caveat that needs to be addressed for complete newbies. The base decks given to you for completing the tutorial are horrible about giving you bad shuffles. Either you end up getting lots of land cards and nothing to summon or use, or you get a hand full of high cost cards, but never get the land needed to pull anything out. A new player won’t understand why they’re losing so badly all the time, and it could lead to them giving up when all they need to do is drop a few of the higher priced cards and add more land cards to the deck. Even as a veteran, I spent the first day being trashed due to bad shuffles before actually looking through my decks and recognizing what was happening. A total newbie might not see the problem and just give up, and in my opinion, that’s on the game makers for creating such horrible starting decks.

If you get past that and build your own decks or at least edit the preexisting decks to be less punishing for bad shuffles, the game can become intensely addicting. The game also encourages that addiction with rewards for playing. Some rewards give out coins or cards for playing a certain number of cards or one color, and this is brilliant because it will convince you to cycle through all the decks rather than stick to just one color. You get to see how each deck works, and once you have a feel for the game, you also begin to see how to tweak decks to suit your style of play. Do you go with a lot of small and cheap critters to nibble opponents to death? Or do you rely on spells to fend off opponents until you can afford to summon big beasties that can steamroll over most creatures and still do massive damage to the other player? These are but two examples of how to play, and in just a few hours, I’ve seen dozens of strategies, some of which are more effective than others.

In addition to getting booster packs for winning games, you can also use coins won through games or by completing challenges to buy more packs. As you get more cards, you will be able to further customize the starting decks or build your own, creating a very satisfying game loop without needing to spend any real money. But as I said, the temptation is there early on to buy crystals and more packs because eventually the drip feed of two to three packs per day just isn’t enough to feed that “urge” for new stuff. But if you can resist that siren call, sure, you can play this for free.

I do have some complaints, though, which if you know me won’t come as much of a shock. The first, though, is that the ranking systems seems to be bjorked. I’ve won around thirty games per day for two days while only losing maybe two or three in the same time, and my rank never improves no matter how often I win. Maybe my position is so low because of the number of games I lost on the first day, but I’ve read online that during this beta play, the ranking is rigged so that a single loss can wipe out any and all progress made. That certainly seems to be the case for me, so before this comes out of beta I hope the ranking system is addressed.

The other problem I have is more of a wish than a complaint. Playing against one other player can end up being pretty boring, especially if I or my opponent get unlucky shuffles. On a good hand for both of us, the game is more about our individual strategies, but even then, an all or nothing surge attack can end a game a few turns in, and it’s not really as satisfying as the games I used to play with 3-6 players. So what I want to see is a game mode where I can open a lobby with a certain number of seats and wait for the other players to jump in. That would result in longer games, and it would force every player to be more careful about committing all their forces into one attack. (After all if you have to cover your ass from two more possible attacks, you don’t go all in against one player. You play the long game and be smart about using your spells at the right time to push the “war” in your favor.)

As of right now, Arena is in beta, so it’s possible that both the ranking issues and the need for more players could be addressed. But even as it stands now, the game is satisfying and yes, highly addicting. When I click on Play, most times I get connected to another player in two to three seconds even with my crap connection, and the longest I’ve had to wait is twenty seconds. (Wait times that long are VERY rare, in my experience.) The more time I invest into it and get more cards to customize my decks, the more satisfying it become to log in and play.

For that reason, I’m giving the beta version of Magic: The Gathering: Arena a solid 4 stars. If they can give me a multi-player lobby and fix the ranking system, I’ll issue an updated review that will likely hit that 5 star rank, and either way, I can tell you, this is gonna be my down-time jam for a long time to come.